In a summer movie season dominated by superhero and sci-fi extravaganzas, First Reformed is that rare release — an austere and complex tale about a pious man’s mounting crisis of faith. It’s also, more crucially still, on the shortlist of the year’s best films, a challenging masterwork about anguish and salvation from one of the medium’s most celebrated artists: Paul Schrader, famed for penning Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and for writing and directing (among others) Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction, and Auto Focus. Formally rigorous and deeply felt, it’s an exceptional Ethan Hawke-headlined drama that plays like both a tribute to the movies that have long inspired him (by Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, and modern Ida auteur Pawel Pawlikowski) and a companion piece to his own oeuvre — something that, Schrader readily admits, is intentional.
“It’s a very conscious summation,” the 71-year-old filmmaker proclaimed a few days before the May 18 theatrical debut of First Reformed. “In the March of 1969, I was a critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, and I went to the theater and saw [Bresson’s] Pickpocket. In that 75 minutes, two things occurred to me, and they kind of changed my life. One was this idea of a spiritual cinematic style, so I wrote a book about that [Transcendental Style in Film]. And the other was this kid in a room, this loner, this guy writing a diary. So these two themes hit the petri dish, and sprouted in different ways, and now 50 years later, they meet.”
Those elements are front and center in First Reformed, which concerns the Rev. Ernst Toller (Hawke), an upstate New York pastor who finds himself wracked with doubt and despair, and who — while initiating a project to write down his thoughts in a daily journal — becomes increasingly consumed by hopelessness after befriending Michael, an environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) and his wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that makes its characters seem boxed in by unseen forces (and the world), the ensuing story is a bleak and harrowing one, and marked by Schrader’s typical incisiveness and ferocity — which, unsurprisingly, is why Hawke, upon first reading the script, knew it was a project he had to undertake.
“What really thrilled me was, I was 20 pages in before the script revealed itself to be so different from most things I read,” the actor says. “It’s written with a meticulous energy that glows off the page. You feel every word chosen specifically, and you feel characters never being one thing. Every character is moving in a surprising fashion. I knew right away that it wasn’t just ‘a Paul Schrader movie.’ It felt like the Paul Schrader movie we’d all been waiting for him to make for a while.”
As such, Hawke couldn’t pass up the opportunity to collaborate with someone who, for those who grew up admiring 1970s American filmmaking, is nothing short of a titan. “If you care about New York cinema, this is the guy who wrote Taxi Driver — say no more, it’s already done,” he said. “He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer the second he did that, and then you add on all the other movies. One of the things I admire about Paul’s career is that, unlike a lot of luminaries, it’s been a wild career. It’s been eccentric, and full of dangerous moves, and surprising twists and turns. It’s very hard to pin down. There’s always something visceral, there’s always something angry, and there’s always something well made about them. Even if you don’t like them, you can tell there’s an artist at work.”
Throughout First Reformed, Schrader slyly shouts out to his favorite films, as well as a few of his own, including a shot of Pepto-Bismol being poured into a glass of whiskey that cinephiles will recognize as an allusion to a similar Alka-Seltzer-centric image from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. According to the director, it’s a concoction with real-world origins, because, “When I was writing Taxi Driver, I had an ulcer. I was not well. But I wanted to keep drinking so I could keep writing. So I started mixing Maalox with whiskey, which is a really unsavory drink. But it is a help in a way, because it cut down the acidity of the whiskey. That ended up in Taxi Driver when he pours the brandy in the cereal, and then Marty [Scorsese] did this shot into the Alka-Seltzer. This is just a little tip of the hat to that film, which I thought would be fun.”
No matter such self-referential nods, First Reformed is its own unique beast — and a film that, according to Schrader, exists only because of the industry’s new economics. “Every time you pitch something, you have to have a plausible plan for the investors to get their money back. And I never felt like I could get their money back with this kind of film. I figured I’d end up pitching it, and it wouldn’t get made, and it would just be a frustration,” he says. “But now, the cost of production has dropped so radically that you can make a film like this and be financially responsible. When I began my career, this would be a 45-day film. I shot this one in 20 days, and I had more footage in 20 days than I would if I’d shot it in 45. That effectively means the film, in relative dollars, cost half as much. That’s how much the technology has changed.”
For his lead, Schrader was quickly convinced Hawke had both the talent and the historical qualities — including a lean physiognomy and downcast gaze that recalled Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Léon Morin, Priest — perfect for his protagonist. Hawke, meanwhile, was attracted to Toller because the character’s despondency seemed in tune with the current national mood. “Not dissimilarly to the way [Taxi Driver‘s] Travis Bickle speaks to the alienation that that generation was feeling, there’s something about Reverend Toller that’s giving voice to an anxiety, to a cry, that a lot of us have on our lips, but is just hard to articulate. The great artists articulate that for you and present the conversation in a way you can handle it, and that’s what Paul’s doing here. This frustration we all feel with leadership, and what’s happening to our world around us, and the environment what we’re willing to do for it, and not do for it — and depression. Where all those things intersect — they’re all manifest in this character in the script in a way that isn’t boring or self-serious.”
First Reformed‘s portrait of Toller is a knotty one in which noble and misguided impulses collide in natural and unexpected ways. To Hawke, that’s the beauty of Schrader’s screenplay. “One of the challenges in the way he writes is that he doesn’t think in a dualistic way — nothing is either one thing or another thing. [Toller] isn’t right or wrong, he’s not righteous or a fool — he’s both. That’s very exciting, because we live in a world where everybody’s trying to tell everybody they’re right or they’re wrong, all the time. And it fills us all with anxiety.”
Such complexity is also found in the depiction of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), Toller’s friend and the leader of a nearby megachurch, who’s devoid of the usual greedy-charlatan clichés that so often define such figures. That too was a deliberate choice by Schrader. “We have such a propensity, as audiences, to stereotype men of the cloth. Particularly men with large CEO-type congregations,” he says. “You have to fight this; you have to aggressively cast against that tendency. I was looking for someone who immediately gave you a different vibe. I’d been around Cedric, and when you’re walking next to him, and people come down the hall, as soon as they see him, their faces light up. That’s what I wanted — somebody who would restrain you from stereotyping him.”
In his stellar turn as Toller, Hawke masks inner turmoil behind a placid façade, which creates a friction central to the film’s suspense — and power. The result is a quietly formidable performance, and one that provided its own set of exciting opportunities. “The challenge for me was just to never let [Schrader] see me acting. The whole movie is about restraint. In the camerawork, the photography, the performances — it’s all recessive. And what happens is, if you’re constantly retreating, it’s almost like a spring that’s being pushed back and pushed back, and the pressure builds. The example he would often use is that if you’re painting in black and white, and you use no primary colors, and then in one tiny instance you use some yellow and red, that yellow and red has immense power. Because the absence of it has such a strong presence that when it pops its head out there, it’s revelatory, and you can really think about it. As opposed to a movie that’s always in your face.”
Given its propensity to provoke and stimulate by confronting profound questions, Hawke views First Reformed as an outlier in our current blockbuster-dominated cinematic landscape, which he says is “an era where everyone’s always trying to entertain everybody all the time, 24/7. Big business has completely eaten cinema, as an art form.” Schrader recognizes that First Reformed is distinctive, both in terms of modern movies and his own career. “I never worked in this style. Movies are very hungry for your attention; they’re desperate to be loved, and they’re usually all over the viewer. Whereas a movie like this keeps stepping away. It’s a different approach.”
As evidenced by the film’s rapturous critical reception, that detachment hasn’t alienated audiences; on the contrary, it’s part of what has made it one of 2018’s standouts — which Schrader has been more than a bit surprised, and pleased, to learn. “I set out to make a slow film that leaned away from you. And every time I show it, I find that people don’t think it’s slow. The first time I saw it, I said to one of my friends, ‘Let me warn you, it’s a slow movie.’ Afterwards, someone said, ‘That’s not a slow movie.’ So that part of it was not calculated. I didn’t think I’d have the kind of acceptance and positive reaction that I’m currently getting.”
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